"You're famous now, We're going to start asking for your autographs," said a coworker from another department as he passed the flag room the day after a group of reporters and photographers had visited.
The agency provides the military with a gamut of supplies, from soldiers' body armor and tents, surgical equipment, and standard-issue underwear to the gold-and-blue banners flapping on presidential motorcades.
While much of the equipment is manufactured in other parts of the country, the flags are, and have always been, exclusively a Philadelphia product.
Because the work is gratifying, the atmosphere congenial, and the job secure, there has been little turnover among the dozen seamstresses (they are all women) who work on the flags.
Christine Bryant, 55, one of the most senior members of the flag staff, has been embroidering stars and olive branches and eagle feathers for the last 35 years. She and a dozen coworkers, using silk thread and historic patterns, stitch banners and flags for generals, ROTC units, battalions, West Point, the vice president, and the commander in chief — including every presidential flag that has hung in the Oval Office since Jimmy Carter occupied the White House.
Bryant, who learned to sew at Southern High School and practiced on a Singer in her basement when she was a teenager, is among the few "flag ladies" born in the United States. The current staffers are mostly immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, and Portugal. Bryant got the job at the agency through her older sister, who worked in the flag room for 17 years.
"I'm glad I stayed," said Bryant. "You get to work with a lot of different colors that brighten your day."
The more vibrant colors, however, can also create problems, said Kuo Nam Lo as she and coworker Linda Le worked in tandem on the presidential seal on a blue rayon background. The two women sat on opposite sides of a narrow section of the flag, which was stretched tightly on a wooden frame.
"The red and yellow thread makes you tired," said Lo, 61, who has worked in the flag room for 23 years. She explained that on those sections of the pattern, she took more frequent breaks to relieve eyestrain.
"And sometimes we stick each other," she added, raising her fingers, covered in leather and metal thimbles, and mockingly stabbing her needle toward Le.
"No blood, no money," Le said with a laugh.
At the far end of the room, Nereida Rivera, 60, and Christine Upchurch, 68, were embroidering a vice-presidential flag. Upchurch, now in her 29th year on the job, said the flag's white background makes it easier to see the stitches, so there are fewer accidental pricks.
It takes two women about 46 hours to complete one flag. For the final touch, they add a stiff metallic fringe containing thread of real silver and gold. (Unlike the rest of the materials, the fringe is kept locked up. It costs $320 per yard and each flag requires about 4.5 yards.) Aside from the flutter of media, Flag Day was not a particularly hectic one, said Lisa Vivino, supervisor for heraldics at the troop support department of clothing and textiles.
The real crunch comes at the start of a new administration. Each president orders his own flags, which are used in his offices and given as diplomatic gifts.
So depending on the outcome of the November election, the women on the flag staff may be working overtime.
Meanwhile, they're maintaining a steady pace, carrying on tradition, one stitch at a time.
In all their years on the job, they have never counted how many are sewn into any part — not even one eagle's eye, Vivino said:
"I don't think we want to know."
Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or firstname.lastname@example.org